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Fields & Applications Spectroscopy, Mass Spectrometry, Environmental

Exploring the Red Planet

Curious About Mars

Roger Wiens, ChemCam Principal Investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory Rover at North America’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, shares his experiences in extraterrestrial analytical science.

What is ChemCam?

ChemCam comprises a suite of remote sensing instruments on Mars for the Curiosity rover. It combines a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) analyzer and a remote micro imager (RMI) telescope. ChemCam is not only able to determine if a rock has been altered by water, it is also able to look for the chemical ingredients of life – oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and/or hydrogen. The inclusion of ChemCam on the mission means that Curiosity is the first Mars rover capable of detecting these elements remotely, that is, without coming in contact with the sample.

What has been your most remarkable discovery so far?

That’s difficult to answer because Curiosity has completely revolutionized our understanding of Mars in a number of ways. She has discovered organic molecules including methane; we have seen the first extra-terrestrial riverbed rocks (conglomerates) as well as sandstones and mudstones formed at the bottom of a large lake. ChemCam specifically discovered that fine-grained Martian soils and wind-blown dust are hydrated. ChemCam also discovered a type of lower-density rock more reminiscent of those common on the terrestrial continents – more aluminium- and silicon-rich than were thought to exist in large quantities on Mars. We have also seen evidence of highly varying oxidation states in Mars’ ancient groundwater.

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About the Author

Roger Wiens

ChemCam Principal Investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory Rover at North America’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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